Gently as we go

You cannot see my world. It is invisible, you see. It sits within the nuance of my own inner thinking and creating. It comes from the depths of my epistemology. My work life. My home life. My wider family life. It comes from the good times and the bad. It comes from my creative moments and my times of despair. It comes from years of working. Years of training. It comes from deep personal work, pushing through times of love and grief. It is nothing that you have experienced like I have. So, you cannot see what I see, as you are not me.

So, how do I support you when you want to grow if you cannot see what I see and I cannot see what you can see? Well, it’s gently as we go. One step at a time. One lens at a time. One perspective at a time. One re-framing at a time. We cannot jump into a huge approach without the ‘gently as we go’ guiding us both through framing, using different lenses, challenging boundaries and more often than not, challenging ourselves.

‘Why did I not see that straight away’ you ask. Because you were not sensitized to it and it is gently as we go. ‘But why gently as we go?’ You ask. Because to turn your world upside down by shaking your perspective, your perception, your framing and the lens you use to see the world all at the same time would leave you with a deep sense of confusion, disorientation, loss, in some cases shame and guilt. My job is to guide you, not destroy you. Serve you, not harm you. Support you, not throw you over a cliff.

So, particularly when I am coaching you in systems thinking, it is gently as we go……

For systems thinking support and coaching: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

A reset of the mind

I have recently returned from a holiday on Tenerife. The holiday was brilliant, by the way, but not the reason I’m writing today. I went on holiday because I was tired of what is happening in the UK. Exhausted by our plummeting humanity, the selfishness, the greed, the division. I needed to walk away from it for a while.

I didn’t know why at the time, because my brain was too tired to go through the full processing of my thoughts, but I had an overwhelming desire to sit at the window seat on the plane. I wanted to see the land, the sea, the sky, the clouds. I wanted to experience our world without the people. From up there, looking down, I couldn’t see them, and I wanted, no craved, this perspective. That’s not at all strange, I hear you say. It was for me, though. I am generally a bit scared of heights. I get disorientated. I particularly don’t like when the plane is climbing and the only direction I can see is up. But this time, I craved to see it with a desperation I could not explain. I had to see it, no matter what. I thought about that more than the holiday.

I had been contemplating our plight in the UK and have been somewhat overwhelmed by the direction we are going and to a point, I felt helpless. Then I came across the following quote in the book Perseverance, by Margaret Wheatley:

‘Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.’ – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I had read the book, ‘Women who run with the wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes a number of years ago. Both me and my sister shared it between us. At that moment, I remembered how much wisdom we read…..and then forget. It helped me regain focus in this overwhelming world. It made me remember the compassion in the work we do. The conditions we model to support each other to learn and grow.

On my flight home, my mind was becoming more relaxed. I stepped on the plane with a whole new feeling that I did not recognise. I thought to myself, ‘Do you trust this flight crew and the pilot?’ I decided that yes, I did. I also realised that should there be an issue with the plane there would be a whole group of people dedicated to keeping us all alive. I realised that we all die, so why not enjoy this flight while I can. My fear started to dissolve.

I saw the world from above. I can tell you that I did not move my eyes from the world outside of that window for a full 4.5 hours. I looked into the sky with no fear at all. I saw the most beautiful planet. I felt free and liberated.

My systems thinking journey is taking a new turn. I have been working in a field lately that was not necessarily my choosing. One of social change. I kind of fell into it, quite accidentally. That said, I have done some very powerful and useful work, particularly over the last two years. It was punishing, though. Draining. Working with people who are all feeing what I was feeling when I left the UK on holiday. Working with that every day and supporting others on their journey takes its toll. It has been long hours, filled with emotion. The systems thinking and systems change journey that people are just starting is one I started on many years ago and for me, it is now time for a slight turn in the journey again. I have never been one to sit as part of the crowd. That is too noisy a place for me. I like the edge where there is some solitude, quiet and freedom to explore deeply.

What did my holiday teach me – it is the quiet and deep exploration that I was missing. The negative noises in the UK, driven by our government, had penetrated into my personal space. It is time to kick them out and get on with the deep learning and living again. As quoted in Margaret Wheatley’s book, Perseverance,

‘Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence’

Humberto Maturana

Onto the next stage of my systems thinking journey…….

The Invisibility of the Catalyst

I watched the Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel again recently. Well, twice actually. I love it so much. It is wholesome and full of wisdom. A line in it that I have heard many times before is,

‘I came to pay my respects. There’s nothing I respect more than someone planting trees under whose shade they may never sit.’

It brought to mind the conversations I have had recently with other systems thinking colleagues about, ‘the invisibility of the catalyst’. Yes, that’s us a lot of the time. We observe, we seek to understand and we work with and within the work ecosystems we engage with day in day out. We take actions that no-one will ever know about. Make plans that no-one will hear about. We manoeuvre in and around things like an invisible ghost, nudging, encouraging, guiding. We put the foundations down for what might come next. The very solid grounding to enable the next stage of change and growth to thrive.

We talked about how that felt. There is no glory. There are no thanks. Most people do not even know what we are doing. Then, we move on, knowing that we have shuffled what needed shuffling, supported what needed supporting and sometimes, removed what needed removing. We walk away and start on something else. It is a win that feels like a fail. It feels like a fail because we have been conditioned to perceive a positive or a ‘win’ as something we get recognition and glory for. But a true win is when we have planted the seeds that few even know are there, but they may benefit from in the future.

My words of encouragement to anyone working as the invisible catalyst is to look inside of you to feel your ‘win’. The inner self is the only person who needs to know. Comfort yourself that you planted those trees. The trees that will grow and thrive for many years to come. The trees that may even support other trees and encourage the growth of even newer trees.

The connection between the person and the legacy is sometimes invisible to the eyes of many but it is never invisible inside of yourself.

We’re rational empathetic human beings, right?

We like to think we are but more often than not we fall into traps that prevent us from being rational and our empathy seems to float away. But why is being a rational, empathetic human being important in systems thinking? I didn’t coin the phrase, by the way. I came across it when reading a book by Joe Navarro www.jnforensics.com @navarrotells (Twitter) and I give full credit to him for the inspiration I gained from his writing and the way he shares his insights.

It struck a chord with me because I have done some intense work on systems change over the last few years. During this time, I have been supporting people to engage with systems thinking and systems thinking approaches. However, there was always something else in the room. Something more powerful. Something more relevant. Something I could not reach out and touch physically, but I felt it in terms of the energy vibration in the room. It was the connection of the people, bonding together through mutual trust and respect. It was embracing difference, vulnerability and a sense of self-worth. The more I connected with it, the more powerful it became. The dynamic felt different. It was warm and encompassing. I felt my heart rate slowing, my shoulders dropping and the muscles in my face relaxing.

It was a powerful experience but a one off, surely? Only, it wasn’t. It repeated itself every time. I came to realise that systems thinking approaches were useful, but certainly not everything. The more powerful energy in the room was the strength that was coming from within each and every one of us. It was the energy vibration that bonded us together.

When I read Joe Navarro’s work, I immediately thought, ‘This guy’s a systems thinker!’ I asked him if he had heard of systems thinking. He hadn’t. He said it was just about being a ‘rational, empathetic human’. Never before had such a simple phrase held so much meaning for me. It is easy, when you are embedded in systems thinking, to think that everything that might look or feel similar to the systems thinking you practice is systems thinking. Is it? Is the systems thinking label detrimental? Does it get in the way of the seemingly simple focus that we have been enacting in the work? It opened my eyes and brought a different dimension to the work. I thought back to every time I had worked in an effective team. It was when the people had a deep but relatively quiet inner confidence. They weren’t fighting a battle with their egos. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They weren’t trying to be first or best or ‘the only one’. They were being confident, rational empathetic human beings, who dared to be vulnerable, nurtured each other and kept far removed from the traps of jealousy, criticalness and blame.

Why do we sweep things under the ‘systems thinking’ label? Is it the right thing to do? I don’t think so. What we have been working with is far simpler, yet deeper and somewhat more difficult in modern times. I am excited to see and feel where we go with it next.

Part of the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

Complex adaptive systems and the viable system model as complimentary frameworks

Back in 2018 I blogged about my work in public services and the complimentary nature of complex adaptive systems and the viable system model which I was bringing into my work (which was incorporated into the Creating the Conditions for Change workshop materials).

I was inspired by the writings of Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker in their book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’. It made me feel like I wasn’t going mad when, in my work, I believed that VSM and CAS were complimentary to each other.

Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control.

As I said in my blog in 2018, those versed in management cybernetics and the viable system model might say that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like an open system?

Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. p15).

Think about that for a moment………. If groups like integrated teams and those working on systems change etc get this right, manipulating their reciprocation strategies (which features heavily in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach) may form a structural coupling that allows the organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way.

Working with these insights helped me to create the workshop materials for Creating the Conditions for Change. I was already heavily working with the VSM. However, I had tipped early on from a point in my VSM work where I was considering management principles to where I was considering leadership and how the same principles apply to human beings and systems change, which was ongoing work from 2011. What is it the people need in complex situations? I started to consider the attenuation of fear and anxiety and the amplification of confidence and curiosity. I remembered the exceptional peer to peer support my work in pharmaceutical specials included. I remembered the self-organising and relationship building in my managerial roles. I remembered how, in my NHS work that when the relationships and interaction between teams was poor, everything suffered.

I believed back then, and I still believe now, that CAS and VSM are complimentary frameworks. I believe this because I got to where I am in my work via the viable system model and yet I work successfully in complex situations. Those who don’t know my work with the VSM often immediately assume I come from a world of CAS and living systems. That wasn’t where I started nor, indeed, where I start now.

What amazes me is the infighting between those who focus on VSM and those who focus on CAS. In my opinion, their quest to be seen as the best and their argument about what came first, systems thinking or complexity science misses the point. What is it that emerges when these two frameworks are used together? Something quite powerful, in my opinion.

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Slithering snakes in the world of systems

Do you work with ethical integrity, or are you a slithering snake? Most slithering snakes do everything they can to convince themselves that their actions are legitimate. They very rarely are.

This week, I saw my Creating the Conditions for Change work exploited. I know exactly by whom and why.

Creating the Conditions for Change was developed over the course of 10+ years. It was an iterative process that stemmed from the early days of my work with the viable system model. I have several iterations showing its development and where that development came from. What I realised I was doing was not ‘making change’ per se but creating the conditions for more healthy work ecosystems to thrive. The central element was learning, as you can see in the diagram below.

The change happens as an emergent property of creating the right conditions. Conditions that support empathy, sharing, nurturing, humanity. Adaptability is key as we synthesise together and co-create using small scale prototyping. Nurturing each other via peer to peer collaboration, developing the right system conditions, monitoring for system health and co-creating our way forward in a more human centred way.

Creating the conditions for change for more healthy work ecosystems became my brand. It is on my LinkedIn profile, my website and penetrates every element of my blog posts over years. Using systems and complexity thinking to explore and immerse ourselves in the context of the situation, working with people in a way that bolsters their confidence, nurtures them and encourages them to nurture each other, harnessing their collective power, considering the situation from a position of empathy, co-creating with cycles of prototyping and then embedding this, using my knowledge of fractal structures, at every level has become my UK registered copyrighted work. Work that I have developed over many years, with lots of action research and incremental improvement. This has become my theory of change.

Just because you have seen my work, doesn’t mean its yours. Just because you like the sound of it, doesn’t mean you created it. If someone gives you a drive in their car, you don’t suddenly expect to own their car, do you? If you build on my work, at least have the decency to reference it.

Tutor tales – what is it like to be a marker of systems thinking work?

‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’ – Margaret Wheatley

I was inspired by a student to write this. It relates to my experience of being a tutor on the postgraduate systems thinking courses with the Open University. This narrative is not endorsed by the OU and is not an official narrative for the OU. It relates to my own personal experiences only and should be taken as such. Now I’ll begin…….

It’s a beautiful day outside. The birds have been singing since 4am, the sun is shining, and I can smell cut grass wafting in on the gentle breeze coming through the window. We have been in lockdown for so long and now we have been set free and every minute outside feels like a heavenly hour. But, I’m inside, at my computer with a recent batch of EMAs (end of module assessments). The time scale for marking is tight. I’m aware of the pressure and how marking will dominate my schedule in the fortnight ahead.

Students are sometime quite nervous when they submit their EMAs. It’s a relief, I’m sure but that wait for the result can feel like a lifetime. I know, I did all of my qualifications with the OU and the minute you press ‘submit’ the nerves are there until the day the result comes through.

Marking is an honour. You get to see the finished product at a point in the student’s journey when their learning is really coming together. I get quite excited to read what is in front of me and I settle down into it quickly. And then the nerves kick in. Am I interpreting their work properly? Am I interpreting the module team’s requirements properly? I have the students’ futures in my hands and I am acutely aware of it. I read and mark and read and mark and read again. I check and double check. If I read an EMA at 9am in the morning I am fresh and bright eyed and I need strategies to keep that freshness going for every single one I read. I break between every single assessment, go for a brief walk, sit in the garden, listen to a favourite song or speak to a friend on the phone. Every 3-4 EMAs I have a long break and maybe go to the gym or to the pool and in the jacuzzi (usually all three) – anything to keep my mind relaxed and fresh.

I said it is a honour to read the work and I really mean it. Every time I get a glimmer of systems concepts really sinking in. Every time I see a student debate their understanding, I see a richness of thought that makes them shine. No matter what grade they get, every student brings something unique and interesting to the table.

Being a systems practitioner myself, I know how the journey feels when you are learning systems thinking. I know about the uncertainty, the doubt, the worry that you have misinterpreted something completely. I have been through the courses I now tutor on and I know the emotional journey very well. I want to help my students through it, just like I was helped through it, and I worry that I haven’t done enough. I worry if I have caused any misunderstandings along the way. I worry that I haven’t given enough support, nurtured enough or done my very best to ensure they have the best chance of success…………..then I read again. Yes, again. An EMA goes through several iterations of reading – at the beginning of day, at the end of a day, on a weekday, on a weekend, before lunch, after lunch, before tea, after tea, any time. I do everything I can to make sure I assess it appropriately. Of course, it isn’t me who assigns a final grade. The Module Result panel does that, but my contribution has to be right. I couldn’t live with myself if it wasn’t.

Tutoring isn’t something you do for money. I could tutor on 6 different courses and still not match the salary I had when I was in my late 20s, let alone now (I’m in my 50s now). Most tutors I know don’t do the work for money but because they believe in the subject area and have a passion for helping others learn. On the systems thinking courses, most tutors are practitioners themselves. Some, like me, have come through the courses themselves. It is a team where I can truly say there is a high level of dedication and a desire to do the best we can. It is just as well really, because a tutor’s journey can be a lonely one. Sitting with your allocation of marking, knowing what is at stake for each and every student.

When a student hits the ‘submit’ button the nerves kick in. When the tutor presses the ‘submit results’ button the nerves kick in. We’re with you! Every step of the way.

The art of pushing complexity onto your customers

My experience of moving home lately has left me exasperated, exhausted and a little bit angry. The actual moving isn’t the issue, but changing my address has been a complete nightmare. It has shown me how far away from customer service organisations have moved. Their desperate quest to cut down on staffing and save money has left behind an inadequate and frustrating mess of nonsensical procedures for customers to navigate.

I’ve had them all, the six forms that can only be printed, filled out by hand and sent by snail mail, the irritating phone menus that take you round and round in loops for what seems like forever, the ‘you have to wait at least a week for this because when you email it to us, our worker in the office has to print it off, scan it then email it to me so that I can action it’. Yes, really, you read that right. Maybe they haven’t heard of a forward button on an email? And I had this twice, believe it or not.

I’ve had the phone menus that take you thorough about four menus, take a raft of details over and over again and then cut you off with no action. I’ve encountered a complete lack of flexibility in these processes, unable to deal with anything other than basic requests. I’ve navigated websites that had what I needed buried, about four menus in. And the bots, oh the bots….dont you just love ‘em? No, I really don’t. Online web chats are rarely much better with staff following a script and devoid of real interaction. ‘Hello’ ‘hello I need to change my address’. Two minutes later, yes a whole two minutes, ‘How can we help you’ erm….didnt I just tell you how? And so it went on…… One webchat interaction took just over 20 mins of painful, monotonous interaction and I still didn’t get my address changed at the end of it. I’ve been through, ‘can you come to the branch’ no, not during covid, I cant. ‘What about printing this form off’ errmm….nope, my printer is packed. ‘We are on the phone, can’t you just deal with it over the phone’? ‘No, you need to re-register for phone interactions’. ‘But I’ve already registered, that’s how I’m speaking to you now’. ‘No, we need you to register again because it needs to be logged in our system in a different way’. Seriously, I mean seriously? I’ve had equipment not turn up because the person I spoke to said yes, but computer said something different. I’ve had a raft of computer generated correspondence that was not relevant to my situation. The cherry on the cake are the parallel systems. One automatically generating correspondence and a parallel process doing something else and the two never speaking to each other, so what you end up with as a customer is huge mess of incorrect information, not relevant to your situation at all.

I have a whole list of people to contact, it’s taken days and I’m only a third of the way through. This is a significant difference to a number of years ago when I just had to pick the phone up and it was all done in a couple of days.

But, why am I mentioning this, other than to have great big moan? I am mentioning it because all of these companies have tried to deal with their variety by taking steps that suit themselves, and not the customer. Their purpose is to make their lives easier, not their customers. The have effectively reduced their variety by pushing more complexity onto the customer. They might use fewer staff and save money that way but are completely clueless about how the customer is impacted by their ridiculous processes.

My biggest worry though, and this is the element that has left me angry, is that a number of these organisations claim to be ‘systems thinkers’. In fact, the one that was the very worst to deal with, having excessive phone menus that gave a huge list of ‘codes’ for what department you might want to talk to, makes the biggest claim to be systems thinkers of all of the organisations I encountered. I went round and round on their website, being sent in a loop and never getting anywhere, for so long that I gave up. Next, I tried phoning and ended up on a roundabout again. Eventually, I got to speak to someone. ‘Oh, you need to do that on the website’. ‘Nope, it won’t let me do it because…’. ‘But you need to do that on the website’. ‘It won’t let me because……and I’ve been going round in circles for 20 mins now and getting nowhere. All I want to do is change my address’. ‘Oh, ok then, I’ve just changed it’. Simple as that! I was fuming at the push off when it was clear it could be done really easily.

I can tell you, with some confidence, that pushing your complexity onto the customer is not systems thinking, it is nonsense. Where is the thinking? Are customers so insignificant nowadays that making simple things so difficult is ok? You really need to have a re-think.

In contrast, I dealt with a company who has won awards for ‘customer service of the year’ a number of times. They came recommended to me. Their process was simple, quick, took about 5 mins. The staff were great. They deal with the complexity of my ask, that had some additional requests, easily and effectively.

Then a second organisation. One quick phone call dealt with the address change and some additional requests quickly, effectively and in about 5 mins.

It isn’t hard. It really isn’t. Your fancy IT processes deal with complexity really badly, from a customer’s perspective.  Many of these companies have been wooed by the thought of doing something radically different in dealing with their demand. What they have, in fact, developed is a Frankenstein’s monster, devoid of thought and lacking in the purpose of being useful to customers.  How very sad that they think this is the way forward.

Is systems thinking a bit shallow, obvious and academic with no practical guidance?

At first it would be easy for a systems thinker to be a bit taken aback by this statement, offended even. But think about it, is it a bit obvious? And is it academic? I would have to say that my answer to this, at this point in time, is yes and no. Shallow? Well, I think that has a different answer, which I think is no. Here are my reasons:

We now live in a country where lies from Government are an everyday occurrence, racism is coming out to play and underdogs are seen as merely that. We are in a global arena where the 1% rule and others suffer from their greed, dominance and desire to control. Systems thinking, with its relationships, reciprocation, self-organisation, emergence and feedback seems almost like an alien concept to some. But it isn’t, is it? It is ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’. It is the essence of life and we can see it all around us in nature. So, why might it seem academic, with no practical guidance?

Well, think of it like this – Does your company have policies of reciprocation, with those you might traditionally see as competitors, which put the greater good of the ‘system’ first and the selfish needs of the organisations second? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you have internal organisational protocols that reward for cross organisation collaboration and sharing? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you monitor your organisation by considering the effectiveness of its systemic sensibilities and its ability to adapt in a changing environment? In most cases, I doubt it.  Mind numbing KPIs that drive perverse behaviours are far more attractive. They can be manipulated to read however you want your organisation to appear. Individuals can celebrate, gain promotion and the company can go to the top of the ratings chart. Do you allow teams the maximum feasible amount of autonomy, give them the authority to act and decide with them how you like decisions to be made and then let them work using their initiative and creativity? In most cases, I doubt it. Most managers love to control their subordinates, telling them what to do, holding them back from opportunity and killing their spirit, often to elevate their own status and standing in the organisation. Do you allocate resources to your departments with the intention of allowing people to make enough money to live on whilst also having a good work/ life balance? Or do you squeeze every drop of work out of them that you can, pay them as little as you can get away with and get rid of them at a drop of a hat when you want to make ‘savings’? Would you go to your Board meeting and tell your partners that you want to ‘create the conditions for change’ with others, rather than compete and be the best? You would be laughed out of the Boardroom in a lot of cases. It is not that there is no practical guidance. It is not that the concepts are inaccessible. It is that the practical guidance is not palatable and not in synch with our competitive, combative ways of doing business.

Our Western world has moulded us in such a way that what has become obvious to many is not collaboration but competition, not sharing but hoarding, not reciprocation but taking everything we can for ourselves. We are educated in ways that makes us consider things as independent subjects. Our politics teaches us that charlatan like behaviour wins. Many know this way is wrong and seek better ways. Through them, there is lots of practical guidance, but it isn’t what everyone wants to hear. This is even evident in the systems thinking community. There are often claims of collaboration and sharing and yet the reality boils down to competition and a need for control. To be seen as first, or more importantly not to be seen as being last.

But, is systems thinking ‘all that’? Is it the thing that will ‘save us’, make our world better and end misery on our planet? Make our organisations thrive and grow? Who knows if it can prevail over the dominant competitive control? Our democracy is for sale and our internal worlds are all individually constructed by algorithms and behaviour shifting manipulation. Can systems thinking prevail over this. Some say it can. Personally, I think all we can do is keep trying.

So, is it obvious? It should be but it has been lost somewhere along the way. Is it academic? Only if you are looking in the wrong places for inspiration and practical examples of implementation. There are lots out there. If you can’t see them, you aren’t looking. Is it shallow? I don’t think so because systems thinking includes humans and the nature of human behaviour is not shallow. We are the creators and destroyers of ourselves. We create the conditions around us that do not let systems thinking thrive. Why do we prefer competition and ‘winning’ over sharing and collaborating? Why do we prefer control over freedom? Why do we prefer to only see what we want to see, rather than the bigger picture? These are quite deep questions and are being debated and considered by systems thinkers and others across the globe.

In essence, I think the question is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking ‘systems thinking is quite obvious, so why is it still in the world of the academic without it being practically implemented?’ It is only with this kind of question, rather than the ‘it’s great – no it isn’t’ debate that I think we might start to get some additional enlightenment.

Despite my own inner concerns, I continue to pursue what I believe to be good and right. What is true to human nature and what sets us free from the negativity and binding control. It’s a tough road to travel, but I haven’t been put off yet.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley (one of my favourite systems thinkers) ‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’. Maybe you have to believe it, to see it.

Systems thinking little stories: Who killed the local chippy?

 

I drove past the local chippy tonight. I looked quite pitiful. Its blue neon light was shining bright but there was no-one inside. It was the same last night and the night before. In fact, it’s been like that for some time, even on weekends. The Friday tradition of a ‘chippy tea’ wasn’t hitting this little shop anymore.

I say anymore because at one time it was the busiest little chippy I had ever known. Every Friday it was packed, with the queue out of the door and down the street. During the week it was very much the same. But then it happened. The sad day came that the chippy was sold, and ‘they’ took over. I say ‘they’ because no-one knows their names. Not least because no-one goes there anymore. So, what happened?

I came to the city around 15 years ago. I knew no-one here and wasn’t familiar with the area at all. I did, however, find the local chippy. It was a hive of ‘busyness’ and chatter and laughing and connection. After only a few months I began to see the same people over and over again. We knew where each other worked, how we spent our leisure time and Sheila behind the counter knew every one of us. As soon as each one of us walked through the door we saw a smiling face and heard, ‘the usual?’ I don’t think she knew it, but she didn’t ‘work in a chippy’ she facilitated a community hub. She created a community with friendliness, familiarity and usually a huge dose of humour.

Purpose is important, you see. To the local community, the purpose of this little place wasn’t just to serve fish and chips but to provide a meeting place where familiar faces could say hello and have a brief chat whilst ordering our food. She crated it, she maintained it and facilitated it and the locals loved it.

When ‘they’ took over the front shop went silent. We saw Sheila being ordered around, told how to deal with the orders and chastised for her familiarity with the customers. They exerted their power and control, and little did they know it but they were soon to kill off their own business.

But where did they go wrong? Purpose! Purpose is where they went wrong. They didn’t understand the bigger picture. They didn’t understand the purpose that this little retail outlet held for the community. They didn’t understand the purpose that Sheila understood perfectly.

They thought they bought a chippy. What they did was failed to think wider than the four walls and the battered cod. They didn’t understand the purpose from their customers’ point of view. I don’t know where everyone goes now. I never see them. I don’t go there anymore and neither does everyone else it seems.

Think wider. Think purpose. Think other people’s point of view…..or you might just miss something vital.